When I was a young boy, I played the silver ball.
Wizards, the cult classic from outsider animator Ralph Bakshi, makes its debut on Blu-ray. Love it or hate it, you’ve never seen a movie like it.
It’s the distant future. After humanity blew itself up with nuclear bombs, magical creatures such as elves and fairies reawaken and reclaim the Earth. The evil wizard Black Wolf (Steve Gravers) plots to conquer the world by using the human war machines of old. His brother, the peaceful wizard Avatar (Bob Holt), sets out on a quest to stop him, accompanied by the heroic young boy Weehawk (Richard Romanus) and the beautiful fairy Elinore (Jesse Wells).
The essay in the accompanying digibook makes a case for Wizards as a contemporary of Star Wars. It reveals several parallels between the two. Both films were financed by 20th Century Fox, both were produced by Alan Ladd Jr., and both were released after a time in which fantasy adventure films were out of fashion. Oh, and both featured an unknown young actor named Mark Hamill. What’s more interesting to me, though, is not how the movies are similar, but the ways they are different.
Many historians point to timing as a key to Star Wars’ overnight success. The Vietnam conflict had been over just long enough so that folks were ready for nostalgia, for old-fashioned good guys versus bad guys fantasy. Wizards, which began preproduction way back in 1966, goes the opposite direction by putting its defiant “make love not war” message front and center. We’re told right from the start that machines and technology are bad, while communing with nature is good. In one short scene, a mother consoles her children, saying that although the enemy has tanks and bombs, “all we have is love.” Avatar is very much the aging hippie type, a lot less Dumbledore and a lot more Jerry Garcia. His laid back attitude and “free love” relationship with Elinor brings a strong counterculture vibe to the film. The movie is rife with satire, such as a church where corporate slogans are the deities, or a character identified as “The President,” dressed as a clown. (Subtle!) It’s arguable that audiences had already seen enough of this type of stuff throughout the late ’60s and early ’70s and were instead more welcoming to nostalgic matinee thrills of Star Wars.
Or perhaps Wizards was, and still is, too damn weird for mainstream audiences. It’s one of the all-time great “get high” movies. A study in contradictions, the animation is a nonstop stream of contrasting imagery. Nothing matches, which makes trying to follow the action on screen a bewildering experience. Backgrounds rarely look like they’re in the same world as the characters. Sometimes they’re watercolor paintings, sometimes they’re black and white drawings, and sometimes they’re just random swaths of color. Then there’s the rotoscoping, a technique Bakshi is famous for, which attempts to blend live action material and stock footage into the animation. Here, tanks and soldiers are placed against the brightly colored backgrounds, giving them an almost ghostly appearance. These rotoscoped scenes, too, are incongruous with the rest of the movie. No one will ever call Star Wars “realistic,” yet that movie’s sets and props had a used, “lived in” quality that helped us believe in its far out setting. The otherworldly setting of Wizards, haphazardly depicted with several scattershot art styles, is less like experiencing another world, and more like one big hallucination. Granted, the crazy visuals can be enjoyed purely for their colorful weirdness if you’re in the right state of mind—preferably one enhanced by legally ambiguous substances—but that’s at the expense of the story.
Bakshi is often credited as a pioneer when it comes to animation for adults, as opposed to the usual children’s cartoons. Wizards easily earns its PG rating. After the opening narration tells us this is a world with elves and fairies, we get our first glimpse of some fairies…as streetwalking prostitutes. This says to viewers that they’re not watching a typical fairy tale. Avatar and Weehawk are portrayed in a simplistic and friendly-looking Saturday morning cartoon style, while Elinor vamps it up, cavorting mostly naked throughout the whole movie. Violence is also prevalent, with a bloody battle near the end of the film, and some brutal death scenes here and there. Yet Bakshi, on the commentary track, nonetheless refers to this as his “family film.”
This is a movie you watch for the nutty visuals, not the plot or characters. It isn’t until a half hour in that we get to know our heroes and join them on their quest (though, to be fair, the same criticism could be said for Star Wars). Weehawk is as bland as they come, given no personality traits other than just he’s the good guy. Our villain, Black Wolf, doesn’t get much motivation other than “look how evil I am.” The movie’s most iconic character is a robotic assassin named Necron 99, who Avatar reprograms to be more peaceful, even renaming him Peace. (Again, subtle!) The problem is, he’s given nothing to do except look cool in a few shots. The various side characters and monsters our heroes encounter on their journey don’t amount to much, story wise, and a few key character moments happen off screen, with us only learning about them later. A lot of the story got swept aside, it seems, to make room for more trippy rotoscoping.
Even worse, though, are the narrated segments. Several times throughout the movie, a narrator (Susan Tyrell, Forbidden Zone) fills us in on what’s happening, accompanied by a series of still images giving us a look at the broader picture of this fantasy world. The movie begins with a good five minutes or so of this, which might have some first viewers wondering if the entire movie will be nothing but a narrated slideshow.
Wizards has been given the high-def treatment on Blu-ray, and it’s a stunner. All those bright (some might say garish) colors are vibrant and powerful on screen. At times, the transfer is a little too good, as small flaws in the animation can be seen, such as specks of dust on animation cells following the characters or backgrounds as they move. The sound is even better, making the most of the funky 1970s electronic-heavy score. The bonus features have been ported over from a previous DVD release. Bakshi delivers a tell-all commentary, going over the hands-on nature of the low-budget, pre-digital animation process. Always the rebel, he makes sure to take plenty of shots at Disney, but he also gives generous praise for those who worked on the movie with him. We also get a featurette looking at Bakshi’s career and the movie’s trailer and TV spot. My favorite extra, though, is the digibook packaging. The included essay helps put the movie in its historic perspective, and several pages of Bakshi’s concept art are simply beautiful.
Wizards is not a good film, but it is a fascinating one. That right there earns it the distinction of “cult classic.”